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Thrillers in Red and Black Italy's Years of Lead

Italy’s Years of Lead

by SERGE QUADRUPPANI

Italian crime fiction is in robust health, judging by its sales. Italians see it as a genre that allows effective engagement in social critique and so you might expect it to have registered the wave of revolutionary political and social change that swept Italy between the late 1960s and the late 70s, which came to be known as the "anni di piombo" (years of lead).

This label was media shorthand, a way of making the period easier to forget. It helped Italians forget that the bloodiest, most indiscriminate attacks were the work of fascists with links to the secret services and the authorities, and that neither the perpetrators nor their masters have ever been brought to justice. It made it possible to forget the repressive force of the law brought to bear on the far left: in the late 1970s there were thousands of arrests, tens of thousands of denunciations, publications seized, and charges against lawyers, journalists, and intellectuals. And it allowed Italians to forget that thousands, if not millions, lived for years in radical opposition to the state: Italy had the biggest and longest-lived anti-capitalist social movement since the second world war.

The period left a profound mark on Italian history, but mainstream literature hasn’t found a way to express that, apart from the work of Nanni Balestrini, born in 1935, and Erri de Luca, born in 1950. Balestrini, one of Italy’s pre-eminent experimental writers, founded Gruppo 63 and the neoavanguardia. De Luca, now a novelist, was an active member of the extreme left political activist group Lotta Continua.

Has the crime novel done better? In 1968 crime fiction was still a sub-genre under the influence of restrictions imposed during the fascist era: in Mussolini’s day the culprit in a crime story couldn’t be Italian and stories weren’t allowed to reflect everyday life too closely. It was clear in 1968 that there was a change when Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-69) received recognition – the Grand Prix de la littérature policière – for Traditori di tutti (Betrayers of All). He broke new ground in setting his books among the everyday lives of working-class Milanese. His subtle portrayal of ambiguity and moral dilemmas showed empathy with those left behind by the economic boom.

According to Luca Crovi, a specialist in contemporary crime fiction, his novel I ragazzi del massacre (The Boys of the Massacre, 1968) was "a metaphor for the period. Scerbanenco showed the malaise of the young people of the time from their point of view". In the book a group of boys, mostly from borstal, kill their teacher. The investigator interviews an "abnormal" character, an "inverted" type, and works out that such a crime couldn’t have been hatched by a man, it must have been the work of a "hysterical woman". That year the pages of Rosso, a paper published by the Milanese workers’ autonomy movement, mixed articles on the workers’ struggle in the factories with the struggles of women and homosexuals.

Scerbanenco, the son of a Ukrainian killed by the Bolsheviks, was, according to his daughter, "a 19th-century intellectual, an individualist who felt a deep aversion to dictatorial regimes, but also to consumerism and the world dominated by money which was just beginning to appear then". But the homophobic, misogynistic language of his novel shows that the genre wasn’t able to deal with the new wave of change.

Some writers did rise to the challenge afterwards. Andrea Camilleri’s enormous success is the main reason that Italian crime fiction has gained international recognition. (Many of his novels are available in English from Picador in the UK and Penguin in the US.)

But even though he has adopted positions at odds with the orthodoxies of the institutional left (In an interview he said: "Neither the red brigades nor the state… friends who were wrong were still friends, and the state was what it was then".) , allusions to the 1970s in his books are limited to denunciations of former leftist leaders who’ve gone over to the right and become media proprietors or politicians.

Loriano Macchiavelli was 34 in 1968. He ran a political theatre group in Bologna, when the city’s political atmosphere was highly charged. At the end of the 1970s he was a founder of Gruppo 13, which initiated the renewal of the Italian roman noir by getting it to tackle political and social themes. The hero of many of his novels, Sarti Antonio, has a sidekick who "just happens to have been" a militant of ’68. Cos’è accaduto alla signora perbene? (What Happened to the Honest Lady? – meaning Bologna) takes place between 1970 and 1980 when the city’s ruling communist party faced demonstrations from the extreme left. Antonio’s character develops during the troubles as a sarcastic witness to events – like the author as he described himself at the time on his "clapped-out scooter, rushing from one demonstration to the next to breathe in the tear gas and look at the guns aimed from armored vehicles".

Before becoming one of Italy’s best-known crime writers, Massimo Carlotto (His books are published in English by Europa Editions) was tried in 1976 for the murder of a friend. He was pardoned in 1993 after 15 years in prison; he had been the victim of a judicial campaign only explicable because of his membership of the extreme left group, Lotta Continua. His novels have a cruel beauty, and he views the changes in Italian society through his bitter experience.

Milan, 1969

A bomb killed 17 and injured 80 on December 12, 1969, in the Piazza Fontana in Milan. The investigators didn’t follow up links to the far right and the security services that have since been substantiated. What did happen was that an anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, "fell" from a window during an interrogation at the police headquarters. A dancer, Pietro Valpreda, who came from the same background was also arrested and was depicted in the press as the "monster" responsible for the bombing. He served three years in prison before being cleared. Valpreda, who died in 2002, co-wrote three detective novels with journalist Piero Colaprico. La primavera dei maimorti (The Spring of Those Who Never Died) describes the atmosphere in Milan in 1969, with political squats, demonstrations and graffiti-covered walls. Their account of prison culminates in a hallucinatory description of the San Vittore riots, one of the first prison revolts in Italy. Just as the police are about to regain control, a protestor shouts: "Comrades, the cops are here and they’re going to massacre all of us… But by God we’ve had a good time!" That could stand as the motto of all the post-’68 rebels.

L’ultimo sparo (The Last Bullets) by Cesare Battisti (born 1954) is mostly autobiographical. It tells the story of a small-time hoodlum involved in politics through his contact with anarchist groups. It evokes the ideological tensions and the atmosphere of the period, which was both euphoric and despairing, and the defeat of the armed groups. Rarely has the volatile character of the events been captured so well: "How many of you are there? Yes, I mean… of us, the group. How can I know? One day there are two of us, another twenty. And sometimes a hundred thousand." Battisti was widely disliked because he was against the repression of memories of the years after ’68.

Other than the authors mentioned and a few more, Italian crime fiction hasn’t broken with this collective amnesia. Nostalgic, wry recollections of 1968 and the protesters have obscured memories of the years that followed, of the complexity of events and the suffering caused by the "return to calm". A few voices in Italy protested against the mainstream media’s anti-Battisti consensus, and recently they also protested against the witch-hunt against the Roma people provoked in October 2007 by Rome’s mayor, Walter Veltroni.

He accused the entire Roma community after a Roma man had murdered a local woman, and he sent bulldozers into shantytowns. Politicians on all sides joined in. Those who opposed this, who are also those few who oppose triumphant Berlusconism, did so on a website (carmillaonline.com) dedicated to genre literature – crime and science fiction – and the culture of opposition. On this site the role of the roman noir as social critique is kept alive.

New authors show the capacity of the genre to tackle socio-political complexities. Giancarlo De Cataldo is a middle-aged magistrate and prolific crime novelist. His Romanzo criminale decribes the corridors of power in Italy in the 1980s, when politicians and Mafiosi rubbed shoulders. Simone Sarasso, now in his thirties, deals in Confine di Stato with the criminal activities of the political class of the 1970s. 54, a collective work by "Wu Ming", recounts the birth of modern Italy in the story of a single year. Giuseppe Genna (His In the Name of Ishmael is available in English (Atlantic Books, London, 2005). and Gianni Biondillo, both around 40, set their stories in working class districts of Milan in their childhood.

SERGE QUADRUPPANI is a writer and editor of the Bibliothèque italienne published by Métailié

Translated by George Miller.

This article appears in the August edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.

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